Category Archives: ESA

Fly Your Satellite

Every now and then I mention the opportunities for students to actually build and fly experiments including CubeSats into space. I do this in the context of NASA, but ESA also has a robust programme to help university students along the way too.

Spitzer’s Whirlpool Warhol

I like the Warhol reference, don’t be fooled though, the colors are very meaningful.

Spitzer et al.: Unlike Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen grids of repeating images rendered in different colors, the varying hues of this galaxy represent how its appearance changes in different wavelengths of light — from visible light to the infrared light seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel (a) shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left (b) includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

In the middle-right panel (c), we see three wavelengths of infrared light: 3.6 microns (shown in blue), 4.5 microns (green) and 8 microns (red). The blended light from the billions of stars in the Whirlpool is brightest at the shorter infrared wavelengths and is seen here as a blue haze. The individual blue dots across the image are mostly nearby stars and a few distant galaxies. Red features show us dust composed mostly of carbon that is lit up by the stars in the galaxy.

This glowing dust helps astronomers see where the densest areas of gas pile up in the spaces between the stars. Dense gas clouds are difficult to see in visible or infrared light, but they will always be present where there is dust.

The far-right panel (d) expands our infrared view to include light at a wavelength of 24 microns (in red), which is particularly good for highlighting areas where the dust is especially hot. The bright reddish-white spots trace regions where new stars are forming and, in the process, heating their surroundings.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Kitt Peak visible-light image (a) shows light at 0.4 and 0.7 microns (blue and red). The rightmost two images (c and d) are from Spitzer with red, green and blue corresponding to wavelengths of 3.6, 4.5 and 8.0 microns (middle right) and 3.6, 8.0 and 24 microns (far right). The middle-left (b) image blends visible wavelengths (blue/green) and infrared (yellow/red). All of the data shown here were released as part of the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxies Survey (SINGS) project, captured during Spitzer’s cryogenic and warm missions.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Underwater with Aquarius

ESA: ESA astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti (top right) poses with her fellow NEEMO 23 crew outside the Aquarius underwater habitat, located roughly 10 km off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations takes place more than 18 metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. For nine days, astronauts, engineers, and scientists live and work underwater, testing new technologies for space.  

Samantha is commander of this year’s NEEMO expedition. Since 13 June, she and her fellow ‘aquanauts’ have been living and working underwater, venturing out of their habitat each day to explore their surroundings through underwater spacewalks.

During these ‘spacewalks’, they are testing prototypes for two ESA devices that will aid in lunar sampling and expedition activities in the future. Their feedback will help refine designs for eventual use during Moon missions. 

Last month, Samantha and fellow ESA astronaut Tim Peake prepared for the mission at ESA’s Neutral Buoyancy Facility, one of four immersion tanks of its kind, where they made a wet dry-run, of sorts, to refine the procedures and technology.

The NBF at ESA’s astronaut centre in Cologne, Germany, is regularly used to train astronauts for spacewalks from the International Space Station, but – by finetuning the negative buoyancy of the astronauts and the equipment they use – it can also be used to simulate the partial gravity of the Moon.

Ariane V Launchers

Solid history.

ESA: If it wasn’t for launch capabilities we would never have delved deep into the echo of the Big Bang nor lived out the adventures of Rosetta and Philae at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Nor would we have captured some of the Universe’s most energetic phenomena, or be on our way to the innermost planet of the Solar System. Some of ESA’s biggest science missions only got off the ground – literally – thanks to the mighty Ariane 5, one of the most reliable launchers that gives access to space from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

ESA has been using the Ariane family of launch vehicles right back since Ariane 1, which launched the comet-chaser Giotto, ESA’s first deep space mission, in 1985. Later, the astrometry satellite Hipparcos rode into space on an Ariane 4 in 1989 and the Infrared Space Observatory launched in 1995.

One of the first Ariane 5 flights took XMM-Newton into space twenty years ago, in December 1999 (leftmost image). The X-ray space observatory is an impressive workhorse, enabling ground-breaking discoveries on a range of cosmic mysteries from enigmatic black holes to the evolution of galaxies across the Universe.

SMART-1, Europe’s first mission to the Moon, got its ride to space in 2003 (second image from left). It was used to test solar electric propulsion and other technologies, while performing scientific observations of the Moon. BepiColombo launched in 2018 (far right) on the 101st Ariane 5 launch; it is using electric propulsion, in combination with planetary gravity assists, to reach Mercury.

In between, Rosetta began its ten year journey through the Solar System starting with a boost into space on an Ariane 5 (middle image), and in 2009 Herschel and Planck shared a ride on the same launcher (second from right) from which they would both proceed to the second Lagrange point, L2, 1.5 million km from Earth in the opposite direction to the Sun, to reveal the Universe in new light. Observing in infrared wavelengths, Herschel unlocked the secrets of how stars and galaxies form and evolve, while Planck captured the most ancient light in the Universe, released only 380 000 years after the Big Bang, in greater detail than ever, shedding light on our 13.8 billion year long cosmic history.

Europe’s next generation launchers, including Ariane 6, will provide new opportunities for ESA’s upcoming science missions to fulfil their scientific goals from their various viewpoints in our Solar System.

Rockets are the backbone of all space-based endeavours. ESA in partnership with industry is developing next-generation space transportation vehicles, Ariane 6, Vega-C, and Space Rider. At Space19+, ESA will propose further enhancements to these programmes and introduce new ideas to help Europe work together to build a robust space transportation economy. This week, take a look at what ESA is doing to ensure continued autonomous access to space for Europe and join the conversation online by following the hashtag #RocketWeek

ESA’s New Rides

It’s the Vega-C an updated version of the tried and true Vega offering more capacity with more power and the Ariane-6. I can’t wait to watch the Ariane-6 take off, it’s the predecessor to the powerhouse Ariane-5 heavy lift rocket.

Way to go ESA!!

A Century of Gravity

More correctly titled: “One hundred years of gravity”.

In this video, Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, reflects on this historic measurement that inaugurated a century of exciting experiments, investigating gravity on Earth and in space and proving general relativity in ever greater detail. — NASA

Gaia’s Asteroid Detections

You go Gaia! A very remarkable mission!

Image: ESA/Gaia/DPAC/CU4, L. Galluccio, F. Mignard, P. Tanga (Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur)

ESA: As it scans the sky surveying stars in the Milky Way galaxy, Gaia has also detected a wealth of asteroids, the small rocky bodies that populate our solar system, mainly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Because they are relatively nearby and orbiting the Sun, asteroids appear to move against the stars in astronomical images, appearing in one snapshot of a given field, but not in images of the same field taken at later times.

Gaia scientists have developed special software to look for these ‘outliers’, matching them with the orbits of known asteroids in order to remove them from the data being used to study stars. But in turn, this information will be used to characterise known asteroids and to discover thousands of new ones.

This image shows Gaia’s detections of asteroids in eight months’ worth of data, compared with the positions on the sky of a sample of 50 000 known asteroids. The colour of the data points is an indication of the accuracy of the detections, showing the separation on the sky between the observed position of Gaia’s detection and the expected position of each asteroid: blue indicates higher accuracy, whereas green and red indicate lower accuracy.

The regions showing lower accuracy of asteroid detections correspond to patches of the sky where the stellar density is very high, thus complicating the identification process.

Designing Satellite Marking

Satellite marking could amount to much more than ESA describes in the press release going along with the picture above. I can see this being used for satellite recycling in the future.

ESA: Akin to landing lights for aircraft, ESA is developing infrared and phosphorescent markers for satellites, to help future space servicing vehicles rendezvous and dock with their targets.Developed by Hungarian company Admatis as part of an ESA Clean Space project, these markers would offer robotic space servicing vehicles a steady target to home in on, providing critical information on the line of sight, distance and pointing direction of their target satellite.Initial testing of these ‘Passive Emitting Material at end-of-life’ or PEMSUN markers took place at the end of March 2019 inside ESA’s GNC Rendezvous, Approach and Landing Simulator, part of the Agency’s Orbital Robotics and Guidance, Navigation and Control Laboratory, at its ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.“The idea itself is not new, but this is the first time we’ve manufactured and tested sample patches, cut into spacecraft multi-layer insulation covering,” comments ESA Clean Space trainee Sébastien Perrault. “For the design we’ve looked into one larger pattern incorporating smaller versions for when the space servicing vehicle comes close enough that its camera’s field of view is filled.“These markers would be very useful during eclipse states for instance, when Earth obscures the Sun in low Earth orbit, to allow the chaser vehicle to stay fixed on its target, potentially in combination with radio tags.”ESA is studying space servicing vehicles to carry out a wide range of roles in orbit, from refurbishment and refuelling to mission disposal at their end of life.

Image: ESA–P. Sebirot

Preparing For the Sun

César García, the Solar Orbiter project manager describes how Solar Orbiter will examine the Sun and the heliosphere.